By Robin Becker. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. 65 pages. $15.95/paperback; $10.99/eBook.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
Like the elegant Costa Rican wading bird of the title, Robin Becker’s poetry has a distinct profile that leads the reader to believe this is something worthy of attention. Like the heron, which stands motionless for long periods on a riverbank before pouncing on prey, these poems grab you fast yet are undergirded by a deep silence through which multiple voices speak with great clarity.
In this collection, beloved parents face illness and death; daughters grieve; friends, lovers, and cityscapes strain, crumble, and seek restoration; rescue dogs blend adoration with ingrained fear of brutal pasts; and rainforests and coral reefs sparkle with dying beauty. After 9/11, a West Village shoe repair shop goes out of business; much else is lost, and “what we couldn’t repair between us stayed broken.” In “Modern Death,” a dying mother repeats, “You’ll miss me and I’ll miss you. Let me sleep,” like a mantra while her husband, stymied, continues to watch TV “vigorously, by her bed.”
Becker’s vision of our relationships with each other and the natural world is complex, but the writing is limpid, sculpted. She never turns away from the ugliness and contradictions of the human experience, but gives hope through her willingness to let human suffering live on the same page as amazingly varied birds and reptiles; startling images and personalities with refreshing stubbornness, love, and relish for the small comforts of life. There is beauty even in betrayal:
They say these bees can hollow out a house
before anyone comprehends the tiny
piles of dust, almost invisible, on the floor.
There is humor, too. For example, “The Civil War Comes to Town” explores the lifestyle of Civil War battle reenactors, and “The Sounds of Yiddish” offers a sonic celebration of a language that has “the shtick of the canny/mensch who knows shlock when she sees it.” What’s not to like?
Most of the poems in this book are in blank verse—sometimes in couplets or quatrains, always varied enough to keep the reader’s interest. Becker’s poems in form are so well-constructed that the cadence and rhyme sneak up on you . . . as in Wait—was that a villanelle? Although death takes center stage in the first section of the book, it reappears in different guises in sections focusing on travel, relationships, and natural beauty.
A native of Philadelphia, Pa., Becker is liberal arts research professor of English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University. This is her eighth collection. Among other honors, she has served as Penn State Poet Laureate and received numerous fellowships from the Bunting Institute, Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.